The declassification of the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific in the waning days of the Trump administration stated forthrightly America’s intention to align its Indo-Pacific strategy with those of Australia, India, and Japan by “aim[ing] to create a quadrilateral security framework with India, Japan, Australia and the principal hubs.” Lest it be thought that the group, informally known as the Quad, and its raison d’être not survive the incoming administration, President Joseph Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan immediately stated his intention to further develop ties among the four-nation configuration, emphasizing, “We are going to stand up for a certain set of principles in the face of aggression and kinds of steps that China has taken.” The four will hold an online meeting in what some observers believe could become a mini-NATO.
Origins: Quad 101
The Quad is not new. According to the Japan Times, the idea was first mentioned by Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro in November 2006 to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but that her response, “very interesting . . . hope to continue discussions,” essentially meant “no.” Reiterated by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in 2007 as part of a Japan-sponsored initiative to ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), the concept seemed to have gained traction. Members held their first meeting in May of that year in Manila, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF). However, as is the nature of such gatherings, the conversation was dominated by truisms on the need for regional stability, the importance of fealty to an international rules-based order, and assurances that the meeting was not directed toward any country.
Prime Minister Abe did not mention the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but the participants and the Chinese government were aware that concern with PRC actions was the group’s reason for existing. Still, there was little attention given to exactly how such a counterbalance was to be achieved. Would there be regularly scheduled meetings, and at how high a level of ministerial participation? Military exercises among the participants? A mutual defense pact? Perhaps an evolution from a loose format to a more formal one as seemed appropriate responses to China’s behavior? At one point or another, all parties have disclaimed any defense role for the Quad, with Washington emphasizing the need to guide China to rise peacefully; Japan the need for constructive engagement with its largest trading partner; then-Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson declaring that his country favored limiting the initiative to trade, culture, and other issues outside the domain of defense and security; and then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claiming that the Quad carries “no security implications.” One noted Indian analyst, describing the group as “an inharmonious concert of democracies,” opined that, if the strategic initiative were to be limited to non-strategic issues, there was no point in establishing it in the first place.
These disclaimers notwithstanding, all four participated in the 2007 Malabar naval exercise, with Australia taking part for the first time. A BBC report—noting that the defense papers of all the countries had described China as a potential threat—commented archly on a non-strategic configuration “churn[ing] the waters of the South China Sea.” Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao was apparently sufficiently concerned that he sought clarification from Singh at the G8 Summit in Germany and that he did not seem convinced by the assurances of peace and friendship that he received.
Hu need not have worried. Shortly thereafter, Abe resigned due to health reasons and was replaced by the more pro-China Fukuda Yasuo, who immediately worked toward a rapprochement with Beijing. Clearly, the Quad was not a priority. In Australia, the government of John Howard was replaced by the Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd, who had received his degree in Chinese Studies and emphasized the importance of Sino-Australian trade relations. Apparently responding to Chinese warnings that participation would result in harm to Australia’s relations with the PRC, Canberra chose not to participate in next year’s Malabar exercise. Later, defending himself against accusations that he had been a spoiler, Rudd cited Singh’s statement that that the India-China relationship was a matter of the first priority and explicitly noted that the Quad “had never got going.”
The demise of the short-lived Quad 101 was followed by a slow rebirth. A border dispute in the Himalayas between China and India, intermittently dormant, was rekindled. Delhi also became anxious about increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indian Ocean, which it considers to be India’s lake, and also in the South China Sea, where the government mounted a cartographic challenge to China’s Maritime Sea Route.
Anxiety was raised still further when, in 2011, after the Indian Navy’s INS Airavat visited Vietnam, it was contacted by a Chinese naval vessel that demanded that the Airavat identify itself and explain its presence in “China’s waters,” i.e., the South China Sea. Three years later, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted exercises in the Lombok Strait, beyond the nine-dash line that marks the PRC’s claims to the South China Sea. To Indian analysts, the exercises were a signal that the PLAN could come closer to India’s Andaman and Nicobar joint command through Lombok, as well as a preliminary attempt by the PLAN to test its abilities in the Indian Ocean, where they lacked bases for logistics and support.
Japan, too, became increasingly concerned with Chinese expansionism after a 2010 incident in which a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese coast guard ships that tried to usher it away from the Japanese-administered but Chinese-claimed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China asserted that it would henceforth patrol the area to protect its sovereign rights, and has done so. Resistance to this then led to the Japanese government purchasing three of the five Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from their Japanese private owners (a second owner refused to sell; the fifth island was already owned by the Japanese government) in 2012. Although the purchase represented only a domestic transfer of ownership with no significance whatsoever in international law, the Chinese government’s anger triggered large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations that were accompanied by massive damage to Japanese property. Perceived mismanagement by Japan’s socialist government resulted in the return of the conservative party, again headed by Abe Shinzo, to power at the end of the year.
In the United States, the Obama administration, alarmed by Chinese actions, announced in 2011 a “Pivot to Asia” premised on a withdrawal of troops from the conflicts in the Middle East. China—saying it had been provoked—responded by militarizing islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea and by constructing artificial islands therein. The United States sent a contingent of marines to the northern Australian city of Darwin, while the Chinese countered by taking out a 99-year leasehold on the port of Darwin in 2015. China acquired its first military base, in Djibouti, on the edge of the Indian Ocean in 2017.
The countries of the Quad, while definitely concerned about China’s actions, were wary of provoking it and seemed to prefer bilateral ties. Indeed, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s original articulation of the Pivot to Asia described it as a “quiet effort.”
Even in this quiescent period, countries sought out each other to strengthen bilateral ties. For example, the Japanese imperial couple paid a state visit to India in December 2013. While the emperor scrupulously observed his constitutionally mandated separation from politics, the visit had enormous symbolic significance, since the emperor and empress so rarely travel abroad. Nor were members of the official entourage constrained in what they discussed.
By 2015, reacting to the militarization of South China Sea islands and islands being constructed from reefs, the United States was no longer so quiet. In what was interpreted as a clear rebuff to China, then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told a news conference after ministerial talks with Australia in Boston, “Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception.” In 2017, the Quad resumed annual meetings, and in the United States, the Trump administration not only endorsed Japan’s FOIP concept, but also began articulating it as a more meaningful successor to the Obama administration’s pivot. Japan has also hinted that it would like to join Five Eyes, a five-nation intelligence sharing consortium comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The other members of the original Quad were also having misgivings about China’s behavior. In Australia, a media investigation exposed what it called a campaign by the Chinese government and its proxies to infiltrate the country’s political process, its targets including universities, local student and community groups, Chinese-language media, and some of the nation’s leading politicians. An Australian senator whose office’s legal bills were paid by a Chinese billionaire with connections to the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) warned his benefactor that his phone was likely being tapped in connection with an investigation into his activities. The senator had also endorsed the PRC’s claims on the South China Sea, contradicting his own party’s policy on the issue. Scott Morrison, who became prime minister in 2019, was willing to confront China more directly, angering China by calling for an independent investigation of the coronavirus that was first reported in Wuhan. China—infuriated by what it termed unacceptable interference in its international affairs—retaliated by imposing restrictions on Australian coal, barley, and wine. Insults were added to economic injury: A comment by a Chinese editor that Australia was “like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off” inflamed Australian public opinion, as did a computer-generated cartoon showing a grinning Australian solider holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.
Sino-Indian tensions were exacerbated when a long-running border dispute in the Himalayas flared into a nasty confrontation in summer 2020, resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. India is also concerned with the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through a part of Kashmir that it claims as Indian territory, concerns over Chinese dams that can constrict the flow of the Brahamputra River, and China’s increasing activities in the Indian Ocean and influence over the Maldives, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India would not compromise on “integrity and sovereignty” and would “effectively deal with both terrorism and expansionism.”
Building Out the Quad
Assuming that one feels that an Indo-Pacific alliance would be beneficial and agrees with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s suggestion that additional countries could be included, the question arises as to what countries those might be. Most recently, a 2+2 meeting of the Japanese and British foreign and defense ministers discussed measures to “bring about a free and open Indo-Pacific” in light of a newly enacted Chinese law allowing its coast guard to use weapons against foreign vessels in contested waters that it claims the right to control. The Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group will visit East Asia later this year, and Japanese facilities will be used to repair British naval aircraft that are attached to group. Over the past year, the British government quietly expelled three journalists on suspicion that they were spying for China and has revoked Chinese state broadcaster CGTN’s license to transmit.
France, which has 7,000 soldiers in the Indo-Pacific region in support of its South Pacific territories, has underscored its commitment to freedom of navigation by sailing regularly through the South China Sea since 2014. After China contested the passage of a French vessel in international waters off the Spratly Islands, then-Defense Minister Florence Parly stated that “the fait accompli is not a fait accepted.” In January 2021, Chief of France’s Naval Staff Admiral Pierre Vandier visited Tokyo, saying that, “in the face of rising threats from China,” France is poised to strengthen cooperation with the Quad and will participate in May 2021 joint military drills “on an uninhabited island in the East China Sea.” Also discussed was the possibility of France joining Japan in a “Five Eyes Plus Two” intelligence-sharing network. In September 2020, Germany, which unlike the U.K. and France, has no Indo-Pacific territories, passed new policy guidelines that for the first time officially endorsed the concept of the Indo-Pacific. In May, it will dispatch a frigate to the South China Sea with stops in Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
How Much Staying Power?
With all its members democracies whose administrations and policies may change and all dependent on trade with China to one degree or another, the possibility that the Chinese government will be able to intimidate one or more of them is ever present. Certainly Xi Jinping’s remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, delivered just days after Biden’s inauguration as U.S. president, sounded like a warning. “To build small circles or start a new Cold War, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions, to create isolation or estrangement, will only push the world into division and even confrontation.”
Others have warned that the Quad is not only unnecessary, but is also doomed to failure. Retired Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani points out that the four countries have different geopolitical interests and vulnerabilities. Describing Australia as “functionally an economic province of China,” he observed that in 2018-2019, a third of its exports went to China, whereas only five percent went to the United States and hence that it is foolish to antagonize one’s largest trading partner. Nor can Australia be certain that the other members of the Quad will support it: Mahbubani cites former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating as saying that India remains ambivalent about the U.S. agenda on China and will hedge on any activism against it. As for support from Japan, Keating argues that the potential for Japan-China rapprochement makes it unreliable. Mahbubani also cites Australian academic Hugh White’s negative view of the Quad.
However, Mahbubani’s argument is seriously flawed. While the statement about China being a more important trading partner for Australia is correct, the rest of his analysis is shaky. With regard to India’s weak position on the Quad, Keating’s speech was made in 2019, well before the 2020 confrontation over the Sino-Indian border ended in the death of 20 Indian soldiers. Indian concerns about Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean and in countries like the Maldives, the Seychelles, and Sri Lanka have increased as well. Keating’s neutrality on the Quad is in doubt since he has been the target of concerns about dealings w/ China, such as becoming a high-paid adviser to the China Development Bank, with the Australian Financial Reviewdeclaring that the “China reality mugs Keating’s Asia vision.” Indeed it has: Among other misstatements, with Chinese pressure on the Diaoyu/Senkakus steadily increasing and the two sides unable to agree on a formula for a state visit by Xi Jinping, there has been no Sino-Japanese rapprochement. As for Hugh White, although he has stated that Australia may have to get used to being dependent on China, White has also argued that his country should build forces that could counter Chinese bases in the neighborhood, opining that Australia’s longstanding practice of ignoring its South Pacific neighbors had created an opening for the PRC.
Moreover, citing Keating and White’s words on accommodation alone ignores the fact that other Australian politicians and academics have voiced exactly the opposite sentiments. Member of Parliament Dave Sharma, reacting to Chinese sanctions on Australian exports, vowed that his country would “face China’s bullying with honor,” and Professor Clive Hamilton has argued that there must be a “China reset” before it is too late. Although Mahbubani’s doubts about the efficacy and staying power of the Quad may well be correct, they are not corroborated by this kind of specious reasoning.
Meanwhile, Chinese media have responded to the efforts to firm up the Quad and Five Eyes with derision. The Global Times, mischaracterizing the Quad as a U.S. creation, opined that America “has no real benefits to offer, but when it comes to awards and medals, you name it.” Referencing imperial China’s tribute system, the paper described America’s honoring Scott Morrison, Narendra Modi, and Shinzo Abe with of the Legion of Merit as looking like “three vassal states accepting an award from their overlord.” A research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of the Ministry of State Security-affiliated Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, predicted that, even if the Quad achieves its expansion, its influence on China will be limited. Also believing that the Quad is a creation of the United States, he described the other countries as seeing that siding with the U.S. against China is inconsistent with their national interests. Another Chinese source pronounced an India-Australia free trade agreement as merely symbolic and can only exacerbate their current tensions with China: The two countries are highly complementary with China and to some extent compete with each other, as in iron ore production. Yet a third analyst took aim at Five Eyes, pointing out that, since all members are sovereign states with their own ways of defining their interests and strategic goals, they will ultimately maintain independence to serve their different political and economic interests.
The Chinese observations are astute. Already, New Zealand, despite its claim to be a world leader on human rights issues, has declined to endorse the Five Eyes statement of opposition to China’s crackdown on free speech in Hong Kong, and did so as well with regard to the prolonged incarceration of two Canadian citizens on unspecified charges. China, however, would also do well to consider whether continued pressure on Quad members might lead to its further institutionalization and even to expansion of the membership. Whether the Quad will sound the alarm on China and then run for cover or heed the words of Benjamin Franklin to the disparate American colonies that they would have to hang together or they would surely hang separately remains to be seen.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.